The Captivating Cinema of The Safdie Brothers

The Safdie brothers swept the movie world last year with Uncut Gems. Preceded by their seminal work like Good Time (2017), Heaven Knows What (2014), Daddy Longlegs (2010) and The Pleasure Of Being Robbed (2007), the Safdie brothers have cemented their reputation as the baddest film-makers on the block in recent years. These maverick, young talents have come a long way since their DIY beginnings. Starting out as cult and festival favourites, they’ve made massive inroads into the mainstream sphere with Uncut Gems premiering on Netflix. Garnering lavish praise for their gritty cinematography techniques, astute and unapologetic directorial choices, Adam Sandler’s unforgettable acting, and the distinctive soundtrack by Daniel Lopatin or Oneohtrix Point Never that runs into dark, ambient drones. Safdie brothers truly seem to have come into their own.

Coupled with their tight-close ups and handheld used to its choicest best, the result is the ultimate anxiety-fueled fever dream. The two-and-a-half-hour film has a steady maintenance of tension rising to an absolute crescendo with very little breathing room in the middle – compounded further by this fast-paced editing style, following multiple conversations at once, lingering on objects and surroundings longer than the faces of the ones speaking and tracking shots with very long lenses, an impressive feat on the part of cinematographer Darius Khondji, who veered the film into the gritty appeal of the eighties. The brothers make Khondji – who’s worked with the likes of Michael Haneke, Roman Polanski, Bernardo Bertolucci – push the limits of cinematography as we know it and bend the rules as they go along.

Uncut Gems is a cacophony of images and sound that assault and arrest the mind simultaneously from start to finish. Sandler’s motormouth Howard Ratner darts around New York’s diamond district placing bets with other people’s money or being bundled naked into his own car boot after placing bets with other people’s money. Howard is the best, and worst, kind of antihero, caught in a trap of his own making – finding a way out always frustratingly in sight. As in Good Time, the Safdies have plotted out a perilous obstacle course for their protagonist, this time involving the NBA player Kevin Garnett, a rare opal from an Ethiopian mine, a soon-to-be-ex-wife and The Weeknd. And despite Howard continually testing our patience, we are unavoidably invested, sighing at his every misstep, figuring out whether we want him to succeed or fail.

The Safdie brothers take pleasure in our displeasure and despite the obnoxious, often reckless sensory onslaught of the film, there’s a deceptive delicacy behind the excesses. It’s a style the brothers explored in Good Time two years before. The film witnesses a stunning transformation of Robert Pattinson into the role of an aggressively unsympathetic street hustler as he goes on a bender of tense situations, one after the other, as he tries to get his brother (played by Benny Safdie), who was learning disabilities, out of prison for a bank robbery he roped him to commit.

The film starts off on a note of empathy where Connie, the film’s anti-hero we love to hate, hustles his brother out of therapy arranged for by their grandmother. Connie promises his brother that he loves him and that he deserves better than this. Right before pinballing him into one frenetic night involving a bank heist, identity mix-ups, a soda-pop bottle full of LSD, preying upon the charity of Haitian immigrants before turning his eyes on the daughter, violent assaults on a Somali nightguard and lying and coaxing his way with his older, obsessive girlfriend played to near perfection by Jennifer Jason Leigh to post the bond to get his brother out of jail.

Admirably, the film ends with Benny Safdie’s character back at therapy as he stands in a room full of other people – all with varying degrees of disabilities – and answers pertinent questions through movement; questions like if he’s ever been loved or been in love, is he is lonely if he has a friend? It’s a searing scene and as the end credits roll, we find ourselves as empathizing with Connie’s twisted way of doing things as we find ourselves repulsed by his selfishness and self-righteousness.

The Safdie brothers stay away from explicit political or moral messages but the true fabric of the American working-class and the modern American malaise comes through in implicit ways, where skin colour is enough to have the victim be taken for the perpetrator. The soundtrack, inspired by Tangerine Dream’s genre-defining music for Sorcerer (1977), the soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never gyrates and pulses, and quite literally, feels like the sound of blood rushing in the ears. The brothers employ the usual cinematic techniques through the sharp work of Sean Price Williams painting some gritty, saturated visuals with interior shots drenched in purple, pink and outdoor shots hyper-stylized with city-lights. Even as the gritty naturalism of the visuals reels you in, hyper-stylized moments like the drone shots of the city and the frantic scene through a carnival display their bold directorial choices.

A certain boldness and bravado are also witnessed in Heaven Knows What (2014). It’s not very often movies that chronicle the life of a junkie manage to do it in a way that isn’t plain oblique romanticizing. Heaven Knows What is partly based on the life of a heroin junkie from New Jersey, Arielle Holmes, who had a troubled romantic relationship with another addict named Ilya. The Safdie brothers, fascinated by her life, persuaded her to write an account of it which serves as the manuscript for the screenplay. Holmes plays Harley and the film-makers shot in the neighbourhoods she frequented using people she knew as secondary characters and a hidden camera to disguise their presence.

The result is a film that’s documentary-esque in its approach that explores a junkie’s oscillation between neediness and self-denial. Buddy Duress, who plays a character who seems to want to help Holmes but is often exasperated by her pathetic hankering for dope and money, is a special feather in the cap of this film’s strong acting credits. The only critique that comes to mind is that the world of junkies is ostensibly lacking doctors, police officers and family – bits of a junkie’s world that lends it true authenticity.

That being said, Safdie brothers, true to their roots, also delve confidently into bending genres by mixing their naturalistic intent with moments of hyper-stylization – whether it’s through Sean Price William’s relentless framing and long lens close-ups and framing New York as a character unto itself or moments of anger and violence interspersed with spontaneous dances at the corners of New York city streets. The Safdie brothers shine when documenting and dramatizing those on the fringes of a city like New York.

Daddy Longlegs, meanwhile, is a tender, non-judgmental portrait of a father, Lenny. Based loosely on the Safdie brother’s real father to two boys, who only gets to see his two sons for a few weeks in a year, his mission is to make every minute of that time count. It’s hard not to love Lenny as he does a hand-stand on a New York City sidewalk, climbs a fence in Central Park, comes out of a mugging largely unscathed all the while entertaining his sons or involving them in various laugh out loud schemes. Just as you’re falling in love with the character, the brothers unravel the charm to display his shortcomings which make us fairly worried for the kids. When he’s jailed overnight for graffiti-ing a wall near his apartment when he should’ve been taking care of the kids or the time, he’s unable to get out of a shift at the movie theatre. He then slips the kids a sedative so they won’t wake up while he’s out and worry. His charm soon turns reckless.

However, Lenny is as real as they come, and it’s hard not to love for him, even if he is only a tad more responsible than the boys. It’s a sweet film rendered with a sharp eye but empathy for both the characters and a city that’s often unforgiving. The Safdie brother’s semi-autobiographical film is shot with their usual style with improvised dialogues, close-ups and multiple perspectives without being too obvious about it.

Their first feature film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, started as a commercial for the Kate Spade handbag company eventually became a movie about a kleptomaniac named Eleonore. We follow her around New York City and watch her ramble about; it’s listless and meandering, but charming in its own way. Josh Safdie has a role as Eleonore’s friend who goes with her on a road trip to Boston in a stolen car. At just about 68 minutes, it challenges the definition of a full-length feature but makes up for it by being a charming indie title, suffused with the spirit of the French New Wave of the early sixties and Safdie’s sure command of tone.

The Safdie brothers have a few signatures in their arsenal. Like how they push mainstream actors into unconventional, challenging roles (Pattinson, Sandler), how they derive heavily from unscripted, improvised dialogue, their affection for New York that doesn’t cross into rose-tinted glasses, their characters who’re both equally likeable and reprehensible, the absurdity of the images they use that underlie the desperate senselessness of their characters, and an immersive experience that propels the audience right into the various odysseys the Safdie brothers go on through their characters.

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